Chatham University

Commencement Address

Prajna Parasher, Ph.D
Keynote address delivered at Chatham University
December 16, 2012

President Barrazone, Board of Trustees [Murray Rust], Vice-President Wenying Xu, Deans Jenna Templeton, Karol Dean, Zauyah Waite, and David Hassenzhal, members of the faculty, parents, relatives, friends, and the class of 2012: It’s always an honor to be asked to speak at somebody else’s ceremony. Today, I am particularly honored, because I am told that I was nominated by the students. Thank you all for so memorable a compliment.

Even though today is a joyous occasion, as President Obama said, our hearts are broken. On Friday, December 14th, we all stood silently, in the familiar comfort of our homes and stared at the television. A permanently changed world flashed over our heads. So close to home at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the walls came tumbling down. I stare dumbstruck into the idea of the space they emptied. That the unthinkable could happen to so many children.

How do we begin to conceive a responsible re-entry into a world so changed and marked by mindless violence? At a mall in Oregon, at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and now at an elementary school in Connecticut. Whatever one is doing, one cannot not think about the grieving families. In Sula, Toni Morrison writes:

"It was a fine cry -- loud and long -- but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow."

Moving forward:
Commencement, especially the celebrating part, marks an ending and one you’ve all worked very hard toward. More importantly though, it’s a beginning. What you’ve earned with all this hard work, I hope is a kind of restlessness that you’ll never be able to escape. That’s what a Chatham education, a real education is. The eyes you see through today are not the same eyes you had when you arrived here. When Steve Jobs talked about how his life and career developed, he put it like this:

"You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."

It was that kind of thinking – looking backward to move forward – that brought Rachel Carson to Chatham (then Pennsylvania College for Women) and on to become the most significant nature writer of her century, perhaps of all time.

I think of Carson often. Outside my office in the Art and Design Center, just up the hill from here, are a couple of photographs of her as a very young woman. She belongs in the Art Building. Scientist that she was, her way of thinking was that of the artist. She said, "A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood." I can imagine her as a child, or with one, and remember an experience of my own.

When I was about 20, we were traveling by train back from Jammu, in the Himalayan region, to Delhi. Deep into the Punjab mustard fields, we stopped for an unscheduled delay. Miles from any settlement, there was no power in the train carriages and no other light anywhere. We could do nothing but wait under a glitter of rural stars. Over this silence came waves and waves of fireflies, as orchestrated as if they were listening to music we could not hear. I sat on the train bench next to my father and thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. Too immersed in the moment to have any awareness, I was capturing an image that would stay with me, and re-emerge, transformed by time and experience. In this way, I think the artist is much like a camera, responding to light and shade with an image made of light and shade, but only the image. Viewers see what has been captured, but for the camera, each picture is also a memorial, the faint record of glory that has been left behind.

One of the things education gives us is the wisdom to learn from whatever touches us. My father was an artist: that conditioned everything about my childhood. When I was very small, he would sometimes bring us together under a quilt where from a deep warm dark, his voice would move ideas out of his imagination into our own. Birds, he might suggest. Whole flights of birds. "Describe them," he would say. "What do you see?" Although he died more than twenty years ago, my father gave me a way of looking that is with me yet and it is his eyes as well as my own that recognizes images and pins them to paper or paints them onto a computer screen. They document that world, one that was real, but in the way a specimen tray of butterflies documents a rainforest. There is so much more, each layer says, an abundance that is endless. Buried within me, as within each of you, are the deposits made by everyone who’s touched us, ready to launch like a row of dots, a flight of birds. A more recent grief, my mother’s death, caught me unaware, yet again, of the inevitable loss that comes with richness, and the emptiness that follows in the trace of joy. Missing them both, I find myself urgently turning to the poetry of Kabir, Asadullah Khan Ghalib, or Faiz Ahmed Faiz-----trying to hold onto what I recognize as loss, loss, loss.

For all they continue to speak to me, these poets might find some of our world bewildering. We are living in an era of revolution in the way image is captured and disseminated. Digital technology, camera obscura of the yet unseen, allows arrivals in our imaginations before we manage to incorporate them into language. We recognize film as a series of still images tricking the reptilian brain stem into thinking a bird flies where no bird is, or where another bird was once, but elsewhere. We are used to living with constructions so real they displace experience to technology as invisible as the geometry rules that create the proscenium. The shamanic doorway of dreams however, gone electronic and endlessly reproducible, rushes experience through its portal along with the rest of the jetsam. Some may drift to new shores. Some won’t. None of it will be unchanged and all of it must change the way we think of experience.

The journey represented by the making of a life is always an intensely personal one, a record of travel into the self, terrifying in the way it shows solitude to be peopled with constantly unexpected arrivals, each becoming familiar as it is caught and recognized. When I am working, Iike the fireflies, I feel myself responding, following impulse, dropping bits of light onto a landscape they may mark but do not illuminate. Color, line, form are always within reach, but the passage is through a frightful darkness waiting to coalesce around a point. As an artist, I make frames as markers along a journey without a known destination. Whatever the darkness, it is not a linear narrative but a layered one. Joy and terror are charged with longing and desire, unleashing the buried depths, never one story but many stories, like the separate histories of the travelers marooned on that train. We could not tell one another what we were seeing. Even my father, first and most important mentor for all my work, sat next to me but seemed to have his eyes closed–though I was already old enough to have learned from him that is one way to see most clearly.

The mourning that grounds my artwork has not vanished, not even transformed, but I have come to understand it differently: empty places and silences become recognizable, even desirable. These are the places we keep what we cherish. Discovering the beloved as that which one loves, part of the self, allows me, impels me, while I superimpose my daughter into vistas imaginary even as they are real. Today this is where I see her, and one day she will use the same canvas to see me, each frame another word in our language without alphabet. The eye of the camera never touches the object; a vitality pulses forward onto our skins–outside and inside–a beholding.

Much of life trains us not to see, of course. Many people here today are wearing academic regalia for the first time. Seeing only what we are told is there, we recognize it one way. But if we connect the dots we see what we also know is there, we can equally see manufacturing done in some far away place by people less fortunate than ourselves. We see extractive farming practices too, and the waste stream of its construction, transport, and packaging. Because we are here we can see these things –or not, as we choose. For those who handled this garment before today, they are inescapable. For every bite of food I tell myself that those who produced it – many of them undocumented and that tie – keep connecting the dots – puts me in the concept of national borders and its unavoidable result, warfare. I’ll come back to this particular mourning in a few moments.

All art, young Carson is smiling at me, from the wall again, all art is activism, as is all scholarship. My students frequently say, "I know. I know how desperately unequal the world is, but what can I do?" In truth, the answer is they are already doing it. " Stay hungry. Stay foolish," says Steve Jobs.

It cannot have always felt that way as you slogged through so many syllabi but where we all hope to be going is even more deeply into the imagination and the knowledge it has beyond facts. Being here, at Chatham has left its imprint on all of us, now part of our construction. Landscape -- we seem impelled to write ourselves to it. And the substrata, stone, are already their own capsule of history. The rock that supports our campus is both a living garden and a graveyard; the limestone was once swimming in a long-dry sea. Familiar designs carry their own buried history. Many come to India with the first Mughal Emperor -- Babur, square shapes forming another square, a figure so confirming it moved from Samarkand through Central Asia perhaps rolling itself into a new construction in India, the mandala. A mandala is about the center, about being the center, a stillness that is embraced on all sides by balance. It is the embodiment of the idea that of motion contains stillness, such as the flow of a river, a plant coming into flower. The complexities suggested in its traditional organization unfold ever increasing diminutions, rather like the flurry of code within a computer, which is also an image, a word, an idea, light as a breath, made to feel permanent. At this moment in time (again, it’s real but you can so far see only the representation of it) Eden Hall campus is coming into being. One of the things a sustainable campus will write on the landscape is an acknowledgement of responsibility, of connectedness, to a physical world and all that such a connectedness represents. Those who made Eden Hall what it is now are no longer present, and what it will become is still in the future.

The images in my mind of those who made me but who are not here to see their production delight me even as my heart aches. They make the layers of living and learning, a multiplicity of experience documented in electronic impulse and returned to the open, transformed. Like the borders from ancient miniatures that define them, they are all suggestion and repetition, one more way of abstracting the flamboyance of being alive into the silence of a stilled moment.

In Persian gardens and Mughal miniatures, geometrics impose themselves on water and plants; they are stylized in a symmetry that reminds us that balance is never a constant. The rose climbs up the wall and grain by grain destroys it. The wise artist, like the wise gardener, knows that most of his work is done for him, and in the dark; to be present to that, to connect with mystery at its moment of arrival, must be something like what the diamond cutters do, gradually exposing what is already there, but invisible. That is artifice. It is the polishing that exposes not only the beauty of the stone but also the knowledge of the workman. Such invisible work obliterates the idea of a surface by creating it in fact. What happens when it is no longer a stone at all, but idea made visible? In a vault under the tower of London, what is the Kohinoor? Rock buried amongst rocks? Human history writ in the refractions of its glittering edges?

The clarity of light leaping from that stone makes one almost believe in purity–pure carbon, power distilled out of vanished effort, like nation building. Even as the news report by its very nature trivializes what it covers, how do we cope with the immense responsibility of being a world citizen? Afghanistan, Syria, they endure, even grow denser, as the pressure on them increases, but how do we even begin to document the cost? So many dead without markers, without even sorrow to echo their passing. For those already fallen and for those who fall today, blood flows over the stone and into another dark, unmarked passage. Like the ripples a river leaves on its bed, we know they were here, but we cannot hold, cannot even name them. The hard unforgiving surface of a paving stone, that must be the way it feels to live one’s life in a war zone, the skin turning impermeable. We see it at a distance, what a child has to become, alive and growing in a world of destruction and violence. It is possible, I think, to feel the fragility of life and have that awareness forced inward to terror and despair. It is just as possible to see, in our chancy passage over the road, moments of such wonder and beauty that we yearn to name and own them–this moment, and this, and this. Into the beholding eye they fly, missiles on rewind, stockpiling there in the no-time, no-place of our limitless re-connections.

As you listen to me (or don’t) each one of you is writing a new story with the material already on deposit within. I can no more guess how your story goes than I could know what my fellow train passengers were seeing in the fireflies or what sort of birds my sisters saw under the quilt. But I can see in your faces that the stories are already there. Putting them to flight is the gift we give one another in the classroom and in life.